Performing Cities: Hellerau then and now

[This was written after attending a symposium as part of ‘Second Cities – Performing Cities/Stadt als Bühne, a European network operated by HELLERAU, European Center for the Arts, Dresden (D); Kaserne Basel (Ch); Ringlokschuppen Mülheim an der Ruhr (D); TAP- Théâtre et Auditorium de Poitiers (Fr); Le Maillon, Théâtre de Strasbourg, Scène Européene (Fr); Festival A/D Werf Utrecht (NL); Teatr Laznia Nowa, Nowa Huta (Crakow). The event took place 9-11 Nov, 2012, in Hellerau, curated by Prof. Dr Patrick Primavesi (Leipzig University) and Anna Bründl (HELLERAU – European Center for the Arts, Dresden) Commissioned artists are Ant Hampton (Brussels); Dries Verhoeven (Utrecht) and LIGNA (Hamburg/Berlin). I attended with Stephen Hodge, to make a presentation on our work with Wrights & Sites. I probably did not keep entirely to the topic.]

We are in one of the side rooms of the Cultural Institute in Hellerau, and Dramaturg Matthias Frense is asking Katja Aßmann, Artistic Director of Urban Arts, Ruhr, to explain the pressing interest in ‘Urban Art’.

‘What is Urban Art?’ we hiss to each other.

Since we have been invited here, it might be presumed to be something we do with Wrights & Sites, but in a city like Exeter, the idea of the ‘urban’ becomes quickly entangled with the managed ‘rural’. So, as Sociologist Helmut Berking suggests, we might need to start by wondering what a city is. What any city is, and the nature of this particular city. This one, where I write. That one, where I spoke.

Even before I get to Dresden, I am more interested in thinking about the history of Hellerau than in describing our own work. This ground-breaking theatre isn’t just a theatre. It was built as an ‘educational institution’ (Bildunganstalt) designed for the surrounding Garden City of Dresden-Hellerau, ‘the acknowledged flagship of the German Garden City movement’ (Maciuika 2005: 217). Born out of the early 20th century reform milieu, the city was founded by the factory owner Karl Schmidt, in order to provide housing for his workers. The project, begun in 1908, was closely related to the ideals of the German Werkbund, formed the previous year, and dedicated to building bridges between the arts and industry and ultimately to ‘the reconquest of a harmonious culture’ (Schumacher cited in Jarzombek 1994:8). Indeed, the organisations overlapped to a large extent, with Hellerau’s committee comprising members of the Werkbund, including Schmidt himself, Fritz Schumacher, Friedrich Naumann and Werkbund secretary Wolf Dohrn. Architect Richard Riemerschmid designed the layout and houses were designed by himself, Hermann Muthesius, Theodor Fischer and Heinrich Tessenow.

If the over-arching aim was to repair the fractures of industrialisation through a newly-formed cultural unity, Muthesius articulated this unity in terms of rhythm, referring to musical theorist Heinrich von Bülow: ‘”In the beginning was rhythm”. This saying…refers not only and not even primarily to music. Rhythm characterises every human activity; it is the first law of every expression of our being’'(cited in Cowan 2012:7). Architectural unity, for Muthesius, was based on the variation of ‘types’, creating a repetitive rhythm of white gables. It contributed to social unity by grouping a number of small houses together, off the transit routes, and providing shared amenities, such as a communal wash-house. However, as this quotation suggests, the idea of ‘rhythm’ embraced a much wider vision, which Cowan identifies as grounded in Karl Bücher’s Work and Rhythm (1898) (2012: 22). The notion of rhythm somehow embraced an idea of the human as a motor for industrial production by proposing to reconcile it with idealist notions of a community which, combining work with music and poetry, would operate in tune with the needs of nature and the body. Hellerau, a factory workers community, represented an holistic approach to supporting the needs of both the factory and the human beings it required.

 It was in this ideological context, that of the search for ‘alternative modernities’ (Repp, 2000: 266), that the Swiss musician and pedagogue Emil Jacques-Dalcroze was invited to take up residence in Hellerau. Dalcroze’s Eurythmics, or ‘rhythmic gymnastics’, transposed musical rhythms and phrases into bodily gestures, often choric. They were intended to be as salutary as physical exercise, combining the development of both body and mind. In performance, they were revolutionary experiments in embodied musicality and this work was fundamental to the development of modern  dance. Dalcroze’s particular champions and backers were the Dohrn family – especially Wolf Dohrn, who recognized in Dalcroze’s methods an aesthetic and pedagogical counterpart to the architectural and social unity proposed by Muthesius and others.

Dalcroze wrote to Dohrn of the aim to create:

 ‘an organic life, to harmonise, thanks to a special education, the landscape and its inhabitants; to create through rhythm a moral and aesthetic architecture identical to that of your houses, to raise rhythm to the height of a social institution and to prepare a new style which would be a natural expansion, an authentic product of the soul of the inhabitants… it is physical and moral hygiene which will be the basis of a new society; one demands and leads the other, and the aesthetic must be a result of healthy education based on the rapport between body and spirit in the best conditions of health, good will and “minimum effort”’(Dalcroze 1910, my translation and  emphasis).

The architects aimed to downplay individualism in relation to the social whole: Dalcroze’s methods also proposed the integration of the individual into a harmonious collaboration. This, then, was art as pedagogy and art that aimed to contribute to architecture in its widest sense, as part of the architectural utopian project. It offered a dramaturgical approach to everyday living – tools for developing synergy and sensitivity – the individual held within the collective.

Dalcroze’s Swiss collaborator Adolphe Appia’s ideas for transforming the theatre were important to the development of Hellerau as an artistic centre, and to revolutionising European theatre in general. Appia’s design, which aimed to dissolve the divide between spectator and performance, to create an experiential unity by removing a proscenium arch and by sharing the same light, saw its counterpart in Dalcroze’s Eurythmics. He also proposed fluidity between the auditorium, stage and surrounding lobbies and outdoor spaces, with doors that allowed free passageway between them. His ‘rhythmic spaces’ designed to support Dalcroze’s ‘rhythmic gymnastics’, are a foil to the human body and the movement of light. Heinrich Tessenow’s design for the Institute reflected Appia’s ideas in all significant respects. Georgian designer Alexandre von Salzmann was responsible for the technical realisation of his staging, and developed a unique system of diffused lighting from 3000 green, white and blue lights behind white cloth.

Not everyone involved in Hellerau was enthusiastic. Maciuika clarifies the ‘fault lines’ within the Garden City movement that separated the idealistic visionaries from the progressive capitalists. The practical industrialists who backed the creation of comfortable housing and industry invigorated by craft did not necessarily share Dohrn’s idealised vision of transcendent, semi-clad bodies moving in harmony towards a better world. There were quarrels between Schmidt and Dohrn, and between Tessenow and the other architects over the design of the Institute itself; its neo-classical elements (and the neo-classical elements of the Dalcrozian ideal) were not sufficiently ‘German’ and the whole design was too big, too expensive, too ‘monumental’ to be readily received as the ‘House of the People’ that Theodor Fischer originally envisaged as part museum, church, theatre, hall, etc., to be placed at the centre of Hellerau.  It had aspirations (costly ones, at that), beyond the initial brief. Muthesius, Fischer and Riemerschmid resigned from the Hellerau Building Commission in protest (for further analysis see De Michelis 1990).

Others were simply sceptical of the claims made for the work. For instance, Czech worker, Wenzel Holek commented:

‘One had indeed proclaimed to the whole world that rhythmic gymnastics was an all-purpose medicine that would solve all our social problems. But that still didn’t enable me to suppress my conviction that it may all be nice physical exercise, but nothing more.

The blacksmith was supposed to hammer rhythmically, the locksmith polishes, and the carpenter planes. And peoples’ will was supposed be raised within them. What were people promising themselves from all this, and what was our real work worth in comparison? It was idealistic, unpractical gushing enthusiasm.’ (cited in Levitz 2001:22)

Despite the intrinsic connections between the artists of the Institute and the workers children, whose piano playing could be heard in the houses of the Garden City; despite the festivals where the decorated streets connected the stage work to the wider district; despite the exercise of Eurythmics in the courtyards and gardens of the institute; despite the activity of its foyers, where a market sold locally-made goods and despite the shared light that united the spaces of the auditorium and the stage – despite this constant flow between institute and the city,  the space of that stage was abstracted and the bodies that moved on it were decontextualised, presented on bare planes and played on by light. If there was a geographical space depicted in Dalcroze’s renditions of the myth of Orpheus, it was that of an idealised Ancient Greece, rather than a German present. The life of the city, much less the life of the individual worker, was not articulated on its stages. The rhythmic spaces of Appia and Jacques-Dalcroze’s theatre were radiantly blank, so that the figures are like the unknown dancer photographed in 1927, about which Toepfer writes that she ‘seems to have no “context”‘ (Toepfer 1997:1).

Toepfer identifies a tension between abstraction and sexuality. Austrian philosopher Martin Buber, who became involved with the theatre, recognised a tension between abstraction and the audiences desire for involvement, seeing it as productive and necessary to the imaginative experience of the audience. But on the other hand, Buber’s words, like those of so many at the time, gesture towards the ineffable and indescribable: ‘But it is itself something unnameable, this space. It is shaped by a principle whose name we do not yet know…’ (cited in Rokem 2010: 218)

In terms of the art of the theatre, the work performed and embodied there was a resounding success. It attracted artists from across Europe and North America. It laid the foundations of modern dance and scenography (and through its problematics, the foundations of post-modern dance, as well). However, art also expressed the limits of the utopian vision and the unity of art and life. Mark Jarzombek is scathing about ‘an art of life that rose above life itself’:

‘As a result, [the Werkbund] created a narcissistic delusion that art would protect the upper-middle class from its love affair with modernist disharmony, disorderliness, and capriciousness, all of which were perceived as even more of a threat than a real war, even though the possibilities of war were openly discussed from 1903 on. As Muthesius and others argued, if the internal dangers, which were to be solved by cultural aesthetics, could be surmounted, then the external ones would take care of themselves’. (Jarzombek 1994:15)

Such a ‘lack of critique’ hid the fundamentally autocratic nature of the project, and the vagueness of the relationship between ‘transcendence’ and mechanization, the abstract and the material (Levitz, 2001:14).

When one looks at the ‘Urban Art’ discussed in 21st century  Hellerau, including much of our own, we see a very different attempt at an art of the everyday. This art does not seek to organise the rhythms of the space; rather, the city engulfs and organises the art. Performance’s designs on the world are modest. ‘Tactics’ rather than ‘strategies’ (de Certeau).

Looking to see what one of the commissioned artists, Ant Hampton, tells us about his work in his ‘Blog/Notes’ (Hampton 2012), I am emphatically directed by him to read an entry in the blog written by his collaborator on the performance work The Quiet Volume, artist Tim Etchells, who writes, in his ‘Alphabet of Festivals’, of:

‘Connection. Community. The possibility of community – in the world, in the city, across the city, in the theatre or performance space.
Belonging. The possibility of belonging. From the perspective of artists and audiences.
To be part of something
To take part in something
To see something
To share something
To share questions and frame answers about something.

What is it to belong?

Here in that space – the space of the theatre,
or in the larger space of a festival programme:
(what you are working on is)

The formation of temporary community

The time of the festival itself unfolding, negotiating its way into the city, into dialogue with audiences, and the idea of what’s possible.

Or D. Doubt.
Could you make a festival of doubt?’ (Etchells, 2012)

There is something Utopian here, still – isn’t there? But a great deal of doubt, too. A promise of a community that coheres, that presumes consensus, Etchells suggests, is a false promise. It is both the promise of Dohrn’s Hellerau and, according to Etchells, the promise of 21st century Capitalism.

What a great deal has changed in 100 years. And on the other hand, what a lot has remained. Capitalism still requires its workforce to move in harmony, to the designated tune. Performance still wants to change things: to body forth what seemed previously impossible. There is a great deal more to say about this relationship between then and now, and perhaps this is where I should have started. Only there is so much to absorb about what took place back then, and I suspect I still haven’t got even all the facts straight, let alone the interpretation. The significance of walking is interesting, in relation to then and now – walking as the body in motion, walking on the stage, walking as a way of performing a city. The city.

Performance hasn’t finished with the city. This city or that city. Hellerau ghosts and hosts the relationship – a warning, an example, a 21st century context.

Works cited:

De Michelis, Marco (1990), ‘Modernity and Reform, Heinrich Tessenow and the Institute Dalcoze at Hellerau’, Perspecta, ,Vol 26, pp.143-170.

Etchells, Tim (2012), ‘Alphabet of Festivals’, Commissioned by LIFT and the Jerwood Charitable Foundation for The Future of Festivals Symposium February, found at accessed December 21, 2012.

Hampton, Ant (2012), Entry for Feb 29th, 2012,  , accessed Dec 21st, 2012.

Jacques-Dalcroze, Emile (1910), letter to Wolf Dohrn

Jazombek, Mark (1994), ‘The “Kunstgewerbe”, the “Werkbund”, and the Aesthetics of Culture in the Wilhemine Period’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol 53, No 1, 7-19.

Levitz, Tamara (2001), ‘In the Footsteps of Eurydice: Glück’s Orpheus und Eurydice in Hellerau, 1913’, Echo, Vol. 3, No. 2, found at, accessed Dec 21st, 2012.

Maciuika, John, V. (2005), Before the Bauhaus: Architecture, Politics, and the German State, 1890-1920, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Repp, Kevin (2000), Reformers, Critics, and the Paths of German Modernity: Anti-Politics and the Search for Alternatives, 1890-1914, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Rokem, Freddie (2010), ‘Continuity and Disruption. Martin Buber, Hellerau and “The Space Problem in the Theatre”’ in Theater Ohne Fluchtpunkt. Das Erbe Adolphe Appias: Szenographie und Choreoographie im zeitgenössischen Theater. Alexander Verlag, Berlin.

 Toepfer, Karl (1997), Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935, University of California Press: Berkeley, LA and London.